Zoning out, space cadet, day dreaming – all phrases that refer to a wandering mind. We’ve all been in situations where attention is required, but difficult to conjure up. I, for example, think my record attention span during a lecture sits at around a minute and 13 seconds. The rest of the time is spent with eyes open, fully awake, but thinking about something other than what’s actually going on. It’s a weird concept if you think about it; that we can be seeing what’s going on around us but not aware. What’s going on? And is there anyway to control a wandering mind?
Day dreaming is such a big part of our lives, that it happens for 47% of our waking hours.
So why does it happen?
The reason why our minds wander is something that’s disputed by scientists. Some say that it’s due to the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) which is a set of areas in the brain that increase in activity when we’re not actively engaged in anything (essentially the brain in neutral), as well as decreased activity when we’re engaged in a focused activity. Studies have shown that participant’s DMN brain activity (the brain running in ‘neutral’) is lower when focus is being placed on breath work during meditation, and when the mind begins to wander, DMN activity increases.
An evolutionary case can be made as well. It’s possible that the mind’s default mode is to wander because we instinctively search for things that are coming up so we can plan ahead (possibly for threats.) And maybe we dwell on the past so that we can learn from our mistakes?
A study done by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University concluded that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Humans differ from other animals in the fact that we spend a lot of our time planning the future, dwelling on the past, or making up fantasies that will probably never become reality. This seems to be our brain’s default mode (hence the DMN.)
A negative mood is also more likely to make the mind wander to events of the past, rather than planning for the future. This is known as rumination, and is something that is heightened in people with depression, anxiety, PTSD and mood disorders.
While focusing on the present moment, and therefore avoiding mind wandering, is beneficial to your health, spacing out every now and then has its benefits as well.
Mind wandering has been proven to be a good way to boost creativity in the way that it promotes new ideas. A study in 2012 found that participants who engaged in a task that requires low focus (more mind wandering) prior to a creativity test did better than those who engaged in a focus intensive task (less mind wandering) prior (the creativity test made participants list as many uses for an everyday object as they could.)
If you’ve read any of my other write-ups, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate for meditation, which has also been proven to be an effective way to control a wandering mind. With enough repetition, the adult brain (which remains malleable) can develop new neural pathways. What the brain uses, it keeps, and what is not used, is lost. This means that a brain with a strong Default Mode Network can over time be ‘trained’ to more efficiently switch gears to focus mode.
The time required isn’t clear, but participants in the study practiced mindfulness meditation for an average of 27 minutes a day for 8 weeks.
Other studies have proved that those who meditate for +/- 5 hours a day for 3 months (excessive…) could better sustain voluntary attention.
Besides improvements to memory, learning, and general cognition, exercise has been proven to be an effective way to improve focus. A study done on kids found that participants performed significantly better on tasks designed to test focus after physical exercise, as opposed to those who remained stationary.
Other studies point to concentration being capped at around 90 minutes (though this study was done in 1993.) Note these studies aren’t referring to the same thing. Attention span and concentration differ in that this study refers to the point where alertness begins to wane, whereas the Microsoft study refers to distractions.